Behind the Headlines: Round Two; ‘routine’ Signing Sharply Contrasts with 1993

“Please take a good, hard look,” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began his remarks last week at the White House signing ceremony of the accord that clears the way for Palestinian self-rule in much of the West Bank.

“The king of Jordan, the president of Egypt, Chairman Arafat and us, the prime minister and foreign minister of Israel, on one platform with the president of the United States,” he said about 200 dignitaries only moments after signing the Interim Agreement.

“Perhaps this picture has already become a routine. The handshakes no longer set your pulse racing. Your loving hearts no longer pound with emotion as they did then,” Rabin said.

The nervous euphoria that surrounded the signing of the historic Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization two years ago differed from the businesslike atmosphere prevailed at the Sept. 28 ceremony.

Last week’s agreement calls for the redeployment of Israeli forces from Arab population centers and for Palestinian elections, moves that will extend self- rule beyond where in exists in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

There were no flags, bands, bunting, decorations or elaborate arrival ceremonies such as those that highlighted the ceremony two years ago.

And instead of a well-attended event on the South Lawn two years ago, there was no last-minute jockeying for tickets for the East Room signing. In fact, the ceremony was closed to the public.

Only members of the negotiating teams, President Clinton’s Cabinet, select diplomats from Middle East countries, select members of Congress and the White House press corps witnessed the ceremony.

Israeli newspapers brought about 30 people from overseas instead of the 160 that came to cover the historic handshake two years ago.

The major television networks did not carry the signing live. In fact, all three led their evening news programs with O.J. Simpson stories and only one Sunday talk show even mentioned the accord.

And this time around, Clinton did not have to coax Rabin to shake Arafat’s hand as he did in round one.

“We have begun to get used to each other,” Rabin said at the signing ceremony. “We are like old acquaintances. We can tell all about Arafat’s quirks. He can tell you all about ours.”

But could a ceremony marking another step toward Middle East peace come off without a last-minute hitch?

About an hour before the noon ceremony, top U.S. peace negotiators interrupted a landmark five-way meeting between Clinton, Rabin, Arafat, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein.

PLO and Israeli negotiators were once again sparring over the 400-page accord’s section detailing the extent and timing of Israeli withdrawal from the explosive city of Hebron.

Reminding Rabin and Arafat that the “world is waiting,” Clinton invited the leaders into an executive dining room nearby to work out their differences.

They emerged about 20 minutes later, according to U.S. diplomats, with a handwritten addition to the accord. The flap kept dozens of diplomats, members of Congress and heads of state waiting in the East Room.

Other last-minute dispute over the release of Palestinian prisoners and the size of Jericho were deferred to a future joint committee to hammer out the details.

In a brief interview during the delay, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) spoke of the significance of the East Room ceremony.

“With the Palestinians and the Israelis so much further along than they were two years ago, this signing does not have the same significance as the first,” he said. “In a sense, though, this is even more important because it solidifies what were just thoughts.”

Lautenberg added that he was “honored and proud” to have been invited to the ceremony as an American Jewish senator.

In contrast to Lautenberg’s enthusiasm, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R.N.Y.) expressed his concern.

“Everyone is focused on the excitement and this truly is a groundbreaking event, but there are serious problems with the PLO” and its adherence to previous accords, he said in a brief interview.

With the Hebron issue resolved for the time being, Rabin and Arafat exchanged 4-inch thick, blue leather three-ring binders that contained the agreement and its numerous appendixes spelling out every detail of a phased Israeli withdrawal from what amounts to about 28 percent of the West Bank.

Rabin and Arafat signed the accord, known commonly as Oslo II, on the same table that held the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt as well as the Washington Declaration, which ended the state of war between Jordan and Israel.

In his remarks, Clinton praised the Israelis and Palestinians for taking “this historic step.”

“Finally, the time is approaching when there will be safety in Israel’s house, when the Palestinian people will write their own destiny, when the clash of arms will be banished from God’s holy land,” Clinton said.

This agreement “means that Israel’ mothers and fathers need no longer worry that their sons will face the dangers of patrolling Nablus or confronting the hostile streets of Ramallah. And it means that Palestinians will be able to decide for themselves what their schools teach, how their houses should be built and who they will choose to govern,” he said.

Rabin recalled the victims of terrorism during his remarks.

“The sounds of celebration here cannot drown out the cries of innocent citizens who traveled those buses to their death,” he said.

Issuing a challenge to Arafat, Rabin said, “We should not let the land that flows with milk and honey become a land flowing with blood and tears. Don’t let it happen.”

To the cheers of those gathered for the ceremony, Arafat joined the chorus of speakers in condemning terrorism in no uncertain terms.

“We must condemn and forswear violence totally, not only because the use of violence is morally reprehensible, but because it undermines Palestinian aspirations to the realization of peace, the exercise of our political and national options, and the achievement of economic and cultural progress in Palestine and in the region,” he said.

“From this day on we do not want to see any waste of or threat to any innocent Palestinian life or any innocent Israeli life. Enough killing and enough killing of innocent people,” he said.

Just as the official signing ceremony was low key, so, too, the reception held the night of the ceremony at the Corcoran Gallery of Art lacked the excitement and fervor of similar fetes held after the 1993 signing.

About 600 people gathered for the only public appearance that the Middle East leaders would make with Clinton.

Palestinian negotiators mingled with their Israeli counterparts as American Jewish leaders huddled with Arab diplomats stationed in Washington.

With all the negotiators now back in the Middle East and the White House once again focused on its battles with Congress, the difficult tasks of implementing the accord has taken center stage.

But the diplomatic flaps that arose during the Washington trip over the thorny issue of the final status of the emerging Palestinian entity have not ebbed.

At a photo opportunity before Clinton met one-on-one with Arafat, the PLO chairman said the agreement would “definitely” lead to a Palestinian state.

Rabin, who has not committed to statehood as a final settlement himself slipped, calling the West Bank enclave a “Palestinian state” at a meeting with American Jewish leaders after the signing.

Many in attendance said the prime minister immediately corrected himself.

At the signing ceremony, Arafat hailed the agreement as “a step which paves the way to free and democratic Palestinian elections, capping thereby the political components required for the establishment of an independent Palestinian national entity on the Palestinian territories.”

Aside from statehood, an issue that will be left for final-status negotiations set to begin next year, many other hurdles also remain.

In his remarks during the signing ceremony, Arafat touched on the explosive issue of Jerusalem, which is also slated for final-status talks.

“Our people, irrespective of their faith – Muslims, Christians or Jews – consider Jerusalem to be the heart and soul of their entity and the center of their cultural, spiritual and economic life,” he said. “The sanctity of Jerusalem for us all dictates that we make it the joint cornerstone and the capital of peace between the Palestinian and the Israeli peoples inasmuch as it is a beacon for believers all over the world.”

But all that was forgotten for the few hours of celebration in Washington.

After Arafat told the Corcoran gathering that the Palestinians would protect this accord “with our souls and our bodies,” Rabin turned to his once archenemy and joked that “to be Jewish is to know how to give a speech.”

In a sign of the changing times, Rabin told the Palestinian leader that he is “close” to being Jewish.

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